A New Face at Media Shops: The Account Planner

Just before Universal McCann chief strategic officer Mark Stewart left for vacation last week, he interviewed candidates for a New York job that requires decidedly different experience for a media agency staffer: account planning.

One year after hiring Rob Kabus for a unique position that bridges both account and media planners at McCann-Erickson and Universal McCann in San Francisco, Stewart is looking to bring in at least one additional “communications planner” to provide insights into consumer behavior.

Media shops’ recruitment of account planners—whom they also commonly label “context planners” or “connection planners”—is a new twist on the older trend of account planners working with media departments or contributing to strategic media plans (see related feature on page 22). The growing phenomenon opens a new front in the ongoing tug of war between unbundled media specialists and creative agencies. And while advocates say the former account planners help media agencies pinpoint the best time and place to reach target consumers, detractors argue that they’re a needless addition to a media practice.

“I think it’s a bit of a stretch for media companies to develop a traditional account planning department, whose definition is to develop a creative brief,” said Fred Sattler, executive media director at Doner in Southfield, Mich.

Proponents say that viewpoint misunderstands what these executives are being asked to do. Rather than design a creative strategy, the planners are evaluating consumers’ relationship with media and determining when they might be most likely to receive an advertising message. “[It’s] the account planning discipline applied to the channel process in the communications discipline,” said Stewart. “All of your targeting, et cetera, is worth nothing if the consumer isn’t in the right mind-set.”

And getting into the consumer’s mind-set is particularly important now, as media options become more fragmented and specialized, noted Jack Klues, CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group in Chicago. “We’re at a place where we need to give our clients the same insights creatives have been getting from account planners,” he said, adding that he sees the practice becoming an integral part of traditional media research.

“The traditional research model was more about counting eyeballs than seeking insights into consumers’ media-consumption behaviors,” he said. “The new battleground is in strategic insights and innovative contact solutions.”

Starcom MediaVest Group indoctrinated the practice into its Planworks unit shortly after winning planning duties on General Motors’ $2.7 billion account in July 2000. The shop hired Jana O’Brien, a planner from sister company Leo Burnett, as executive director of strategic research and insights. Her task: “bringing a human voice to a discipline that has lacked a human face,” she said.

During the past three years, Planworks has developed a proprietary “media blueprint” outlining the plan and strategy for GM’s business, O’Brien said, and media and creatives on the account both work off it. SMG has subsequently applied the technique for other clients, including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods.

“We clearly were a developmental lab in the planning arena,” said Dennis Donlin, president of Planworks. “The onus was on us to validate that [strategy].”

The biggest advantage to bringing in account planners is “being able to combine our institutional knowledge of who the targets are and putting them into context,” said David Grubb, director of media at Microsoft, who works with Kabus at McCann. “It’s really, in a lot of ways, the missing link.” Having someone working on the contextual message gives Microsoft a “much higher hit rate” than its competitors, Grubb said

But Grubb admits the process is easier when creative and media are at related agencies, and, in his case, it’s especially smooth, given that Kabus straddles both sides of the equation in San Francisco.

Lisa Seward, recently promoted to director of media for Fallon North America, has five “connection planners” who work side by side with the agency’s account planners on current accounts and new-business pitches. “We don’t have a single client or pitch where we don’t marry a connection planner and account planner,” she said.

Some media professionals, however, contend that adding staffers with an account planning background just creates confusion. “Who is the agency of record for strategy?” asked Erwin Ephron, founder of media consultancy Ephron Papazian & Ephron Inc. in New York.

“Unless the creative agencies are willing to take direction from the media agencies, it’s going to be fruitless,” noted Tim Poh, director of creative content distribution at Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Venice, Calif.

Some creatives are skeptical of a role for media companies in overall strategic planning. “I’m not sure if they know what they’re getting into and why they’re doing it,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, founder and co-chairman at Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners in New York, whose integrated media department, The Media Kitchen, does assist with strategic planning. “I’m not sure what it means if a media company has a strategic planner and they can’t execute [the plan].”

Others, putting a new spin on an old argument frequently used to defend unbundling the media function, said media shops may be unwilling to present truly media-neutral solutions—such as public relations—if they don’t have an expertise in the discipline.

“The term ‘connections’ implies all communications channels,” said Doner’s Sattler. “If they don’t represent all media channels, they’re not offering up best-in-class [insights].”

Even opponents of the practice, however, concede there needs to be some link between the account and media sides. Sattler last year hired Shane Ankeny from Carmichael Lynch to connect the two sides as director of media strategy. The difference in this case, Sattler said, is that Ankeny’s role is purely to serve as a “bridge” between the departments.

O’Brien said she understands the skepticism of bundling advocates, saying some account planners have passed themselves off as “voodoo account planners,” charismatic talkers who can cite case studies ad nauseam. “I’m not sure all account planning has that [much] disciplined research behind it,” she said. “We’ve got to get prejudice out of the way and work together.”

That will be particularly important as more media shops become boosters of account planning. “This is where we see the evolution of our business going,” said Stewart. “Anyone who thinks media is still a commodity business ain’t right. It’s a [consumer] relationship business.”